By: Caitlin Millett, Guest Blogger
“I love being a woman and I was not one of these women who rose through professional life by wearing men's clothes or looking masculine. I loved wearing bright colors and being who I am.” -Madeleine Albright
What does it mean to be “feminine?” The Internet defines femininity as the state of being female or the attributes and roles associated with girls and women. Considering that there is no prescribed way people of a particular sex dress or behave, the diversity of women’s fashion choices-or lack thereof- can rival that of snowflakes in a blizzard. And so, the word feminine is essentially meaningless when thought of this way.
With that said, society does associate certain forms of dressing, speaking, and being as traditionally feminine: nurturing, girlish, soft-spoken, and delicate.
We are told that where a woman falls on the femininity spectrum has a large impact on her life. Innumerable articles have been written with headlines like “Can Feminine Women Succeed in the Workplace?” and studies have shown that women with feminine traits are not taken as seriously as people with masculine traits, especially in male-dominated fields.
Once upon a time in college I encountered a boy who taught me something important about how the world perceives femininity. Proclaiming my feminist ideals to him was met with his scoff. He exclaimed, “I picture feminists wearing combat boots!” I was wearing a pink T-shirt and UGG boots, not “feminist attire” according to him.
The underlying assumption of his comment was that I could not be feminist because I was too feminine. He had erroneously equated intelligence and independence with masculinity and so was confused when presented with me, a feminist that loved the color pink.
His condescending attitude taught me that it was not the pink T-shirt per se that caused him to make that comment; he likely wouldn’t have challenged a man wearing that outfit in the same way. In truth, he already assumed that, because I was a woman, I wasn’t as smart as him. The UGG boots and pink T-shirt simply reinforced this idea.
Yet, this attitude should not come as a surprise, considering the subtle ways in which our culture engenders sexism. How many times have you heard the comment “you throw like a girl” used as an insult? In fact, you’ve likely heard that phrase used in many contexts. Essentially any verb can be inserted and it would be meant to sting.
Girls and boys alike interpret these subtle comments as girls are weak, an embarrassment, less competent. On the flipside, it also entails that boys are strong, smart and capable.
In this way, girls and women who want to be perceived as intelligent, particularly in male-dominated fields, are forced into acting like the men that surround them in order to mitigate the societal assumptions working against them. Unfortunately, women and men who choose to play-down “feminine traits” are only reinforcing the assumption that girls are less smart and capable, thus creating a vicious cycle.
What I know for sure is that there is nothing more powerful than having the courage to be your authentic self. Women and men alike are amalgamations of characteristics: nurturing and cold, kind and mean, naïve and knowledgeable. What the world needs more of are people with the courage to be their true, undiluted, unmuted selves. And I strongly believe that the expression of femininity is itself quite radical.
Let's Chat! How do YOU define or identify with femininity? Tell us here!
I’m a writer and neuroscientist with a passion for empowering women and girls. I believe that demonstrating self-acceptance is the best way to empower younger generations of women and inoculate them against low self-esteem. I also believe in giving back, and so in my spare time I volunteer at a women’s shelter.